By Maureen Lee Lenker
August 05, 2020 at 03:00 AM EDT
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The Secret Garden CR: STXFilms
STXFilms

The 1911 novel The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett is a rite of passage for many children, an engrossing and magical story that captures the imagination. It’s served as fodder for countless screen adaptations in its century-plus of existence, but its latest iteration directed by Marc Munden and adapted by Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) saps the story of its magic.

It follows orphaned Mary Lennox (a petulant Dixie Egerickx), a child who is sent to live with her uncle Archibald Craven (Colin Firth) in England when her parents die during a cholera epidemic in India. Craven is a pitiful figure, a man haunted by grief after the death of his wife, who has forced his son Colin (Edan Hayhurst) into living the life of an invalid out of a misguided sense of overprotectiveness.

This adaptation takes great liberties with the storytelling, converting Craven’s wife’s accidental death into a malingering illness and making the titular garden a literally magical place where plants bloom and wither in the blink of an eye. The gardens are lush and inviting, more mystical wonderland than the manicured English garden. But they rely too heavily on CGI instead of actual natural wonder to convey their secrets.

The Secret Garden is a tale about grief: a catalog of how it twists and wounds us, and how with the right tending and care, we can bloom back to vibrant life. The only person in the film keyed into that here is Firth as Craven, who lends his always reliable air of sensitivity interpreted as arrogance to the role. With little dialogue and only a handful of scenes, he offers audiences the deep wells of Craven’s grief with only his eyes and a muttered word through a clenched jaw.

But this adaptation leans heavily on clichés the story doesn’t need. The garden is not figuratively magic, it’s literally so, with the power to heal dogs and Colin. This robs the storytelling of its power, by chalking Mary and Colin’s growth up to some unseen spectral force guided by spirits. The novel’s power lies in Mary and Colin’s affection for each other, how they bloom under their mutual care (and the interest of kindly servants). The film doubles down on these choices by adding an unnecessarily fiery climax into the film, seeking to inject some dramatic action where none is required. Ironically, the result is to turn a genuinely moving tale into one that is profoundly dull.

Like the garden at its heart, The Secret Garden has always found its beauty in its quietude, a small story of hearts broken and healed through nature, attentive care, and true connection. But this adaptation doesn’t understand that, instead drowning the film in showy set pieces and magical realism rather than understanding the inherent magic in all things. They should’ve never underestimated the peace that can be found in simplicity and quiet. C

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